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Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

Author: Henry Jenkins
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: Susan Keith
 REVIEW 2: Anne Kustritz
 REVIEW 3: Darby Orcutt
 REVIEW 4: J. Richard Stevens

Perhaps no other word creates more confusion and controversy in contemporary media scholarship circles than "convergence." Journalism and communication scholars have used this term to describe industry approaches to multiple-platform publishing, globalization trends, the consolidation of corporate media ownership, and the increasing compatibility of digital consumer technology platforms. Each year, debates and discussions about such topics fill books, professional and scholarly articles, and academic conference panels around the world. Despite this growing dialogue, a universally accepted definition for convergence appears to be beyond our reach, as competing "convergence" theories and constructs refuse to converge.

Stepping beyond the constraints of these definitions (while trying to capture the spirit of each), Henry Jenkins considers these questions from a cultural theory perspective in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Jenkins is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities and has written more than 100 articles and book chapters on a wide variety of topics concerning fan culture, video game culture, and new technology.

Jenkins defines "convergence culture" as "a paradigm shift -- a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture" (243). For Jenkins, the media technologies and the corporations that wield them do not themselves produce convergence culture, but instead help stimulate the participatory activities that occur around digital media (as juxtaposed against the relatively passive audience model associated with previous mass media consumption), allowing increased socialization with other like-minded individuals. By focusing on behavior, Jenkins avoids what he refers to as the "black box fallacy" (13), the focus of media and technology scholars on delivery systems instead of the protocols, formats, and the resulting activities that transcend individual products and platforms.

The notion that culture is created in the minds of the consumer (as opposed to within the minds of the artifact's creator or distributor) is not a new concept for Jenkins. This view of cultural creation was central to his 1992 book, Textual Poachers, a treatise on the relevance of fan cultures to the production of their cultural content. Textual Poachers dug deep into the network of caves that exist below mass media consumption, unearthing the marginalized voices of fans that in community with one another often find creative and powerful ways to participate in the production of cultural capital by engaging the objects of their interest.

In many ways, Convergence Culture picks up where Textual Poachers left off. As access to digital communication technologies becomes more ubiquitous, the empowered communities under the surface of our society are using a combination of popular culture, technology, and civic institutions to project their voices into mainstream society. In short, technology is eroding the divide between consumer and producer, bringing about a convergence of mass culture and interpersonal culture into a "convergence culture."

According to Jenkins, this balance of power is due both to the increasing responsiveness of mass culture producers to their consumers and to the increasing power of networked consumer communities. As Robert Putnam (2000) described in Bowling Alone, the increasingly individualized consumption of mass culture (among other factors) in the latter half of the 20th century fractured communities into smaller cells of cultural conversation. Jenkins appears to be arguing that some of these isolated consumers are now using new technology platforms to rebuild communities and social capital around their networked consumption and participatory culture activities.

As in much of his past work, Jenkins doesn't draw his observations from examining macro-trends or statistics from society at large. Rather, he uses ethnographic techniques to examine communities built around popular culture phenomena that involve unique combinations of digital media: fans of Survivor, American Idol, The Matrix, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.

In his chapter examining the fans of Survivor, Jenkins demonstrates how the "expert paradigm" that reigned under previous models of mass culture is giving way to collective intelligence endeavors. As Survivor fans bent on "spoiling" the show make use of their incredible amassed resources, they become a formidable foe for the show's producers who are naturally dedicated to protecting the show's secrets. What emerges from this annual game of cat-and-mouse is a confrontation between new and old media culture, with the efforts of the collective mass often outstripping the best security money can purchase.

Jenkins' chapter about American Idol describes the shift away from traditional broadcast television towards "experience-based, access-driven marketing" (72). Built around the text of the show are dozens of strategic promotional activities geared towards encouraging the contribution and production of fan content for the purpose of engaging and securing the more active consumers (who tend to spend more money on consumer goods).

Perhaps the best discussion of transmedia storytelling analysis can be found in Jenkins' chapter analyzing the Matrix franchise. Together with his examples from the interactions between consumers and creators of the Star Wars narratives, Jenkins convincingly argues that younger generations of content consumers are demanding more involvement in the storytelling process and are developing subtle tastes as "informational hunters and gathers" (129). Fan communities crave complex storylines coming from diverse angles and are willing to track narratives across multiple media (movies, books, comics, video games, blogs, fan fiction, and creator interviews, to name a few) and even participate in cooperative production activities to fill in the void between what dimensions of a story are told and untold.

Jenkins also delves into the use of narrative to develop literacy with an extension and update of his 2004 Technology Review article about how youth have authored fan stories and information exchanges surrounding the Harry Potter novels. Jenkins does not spend all of his time considering the world of fantasy. His final two chapters address how the trends cited in earlier chapters are influencing the way voters and consumers are using their newfound communities and participatory activities in the political and public realms. Jenkins argues that our new forms of cultural literacy, with their sensitivity for intertextual meaning and strong use of visual communication, are changing the way political candidates, parties, and voters interact. Simply put, the patterns of authorship, consumption, and the social networking that develop around popular culture interests are leading Americans to produce, consume, and share political messages with a sense of empowerment not felt by some since mass culture helped isolate the individual from the political process in the late 20th century.

Viral media campaigns, "political spoiler" blogs, organizations like Moveon, and even pop culture crossover narratives like Jon Stewart and Comedy Central's The Daily Show serve as sites of study for Jenkins to illustrate the transfer of consumption and production behaviors learned by "playing" with popular culture to the "serious" world of democratic politics and informational exchange.

The strength of Convergence Culture is its accessibility by readers of diverse backgrounds and fields of study. Jenkins has shown a knack for taking complex frameworks from cultural studies and applying them in an accessible manner by using specific and concrete examples likely familiar to many groups of readers.

Some readers will likely chafe at the book's focus on entertainment-driven subject matter. However, it is difficult to see how Jenkins could have presented a view of the convergence of two older cultures (public mass culture production and the privatized consumption of mass culture) without informing the reader about the latter culture's emergence in public discourse. Surely it is no matter of controversy that the activities described as fringe in Textual Poachers have become more widespread and visible because of the empowerment of digital technology platforms.

How this new empowerment will change the non-entertainment public discourse remains to be seen, but Jenkins' contribution carries intriguing implications for where future scholarship should look for evidence of the coming transformation.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2004). "Why Heather Can Write," MIT Technology Review, February 6, 2004.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

J. Richard Stevens:
J. Richards Stevens is an assistant professor in the Division of Journalism at Southern Methodist University. His research interests include the intersection of technology and mass media forms on the profession of journalism, the ethical implications of emerging media practices, technology adoption patterns within different segments of society, and the effects of popular discourse on civic engagement.  <stevensr@smu.edu>

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